Socrates on Virtue and Knowledge

I have always been more drawn to Aristotle than Plato, but over the past several months I have been rereading some Platonic dialogues with a few friends and have come to a greater appreciation of his works. One perennial topic of discussion among our group that has brought this greater appreciation out is Socrates’ seemingly perplexing claim that virtue is knowledge, and that it is impossible for one to know the good, and willingly do something bad.

At first blush this position on virtue and knowing the good seems absurd. Most who have committed wrongs would acknowledge that their actions were wrong, and that they knew that they were wrong while they committed them. Socrates’ claim seems to deny the reality of the experience of most of us.

So this leads to the question of what Socrates is getting at? Is Socrates just providing a nonsensical explanation that flies in the face of the obvious existential situation of human beings? Or is he trying to say something that eludes us because what Socrates means by knowledge is something entirely different from what most think of knowledge as? I tend to think that it is the latter rather than the former, and will argue that Socrates and Plato capture an interesting element of knowledge that tends to be missed when we think of knowledge in terms of intellectually being able to recall particular set of facts.

If I know that theft is wrong, but steal something, what is causing me to steal? One explanation is that my desire for the thing overpowered my knowledge that theft is wrong. But this leads to the question of what it means for desire to overpower knowledge. When I stole something did this occur as an automatic reflex that I was not cognitively aware of because my desire had overpowered my knowledge? That seems unlikely, and does not fit with our actual experience of doing something that we know is wrong. Instead the desire speaks and convinces that what we are doing makes sense in some way. When the desire speaks it might say even though theft is wrong I really need this thing and I can’t afford it at the moment. Thus, the opposition that is posed between desire and knowledge is not between a mere noncognitive state of wanting something, and knowledge of particular moral facts. Instead, despite its seeming childishness, a more appropriate image is of the angel and devil on the shoulders. Each of these figures holds different things to be true and desires those different things, but the beliefs and desires of the inherently oppositional figures are not compatible. So, we see that when we are considering what leads us to do something that we “know” is wrong it is not as if we react like automatons to some foreign desire, but rather that aspects of ourselves that say certain things about what is valuable convince us, albeit temporarily, to take action because in some sense that aspect of ourselves sees this as the best course of action possible at the time.

Now, what does the preceding discussion tell us about knowledge? It seems to me that it rejects the idea of knowledge as merely being able to recall certain facts and being convinced abstractly of the truth of particular propositions. Instead it seems to suggest to me that ethical knowledge, at the very least, is always already linked to character and valuation. This seems plausible in that what we believe in the ethical realm cannot be disconnected from the values and goods we are drawn to realize in the world. If I think that the pious life of the mind is and this is real knowledge for me than this is not just something that I believe and has no impact on my life; instead my actions will be linked with these beliefs. It is implausible to say that someone has ethical knowledge of the value of the life of the mind, if they do not find themselves called or drawn to pursue this life. This distinction between naturalistic fact and evaluative claims was not part of the lexicon of Socrates or any other Ancient Greek thinker, but it has significant weight for us, and thus I think we can recognize the truth of Socrates’ thought in the ethical realm, while finding it more implausible in the naturalistc realm.

But if our ethical knowledge is based on our fundamental commitments why do we do things that we know our wrong? In essence, the answer is that our selves, or souls, as Socrates would say are disordered, rather than properly ordered. We have deep commitments to many things that often come into conflict in life. I may really care about being healthy, but I also am drawn to the sensuous enjoyment of pizza. It is not as though I realize eating pizza is unhealthy and thus bad from the perspective of health, but am overpowered by my a noncognitive desire for pizza. Instead, the part of myself that is deeply enamoured with the sensuous momentarily takes the reins, to use a Platonic image, even though another part of myself is speaking against this action. In this sense there is not a single homogeneous self that has commitments, but rather different elements of myself have different commitments, and at times one element of the self will be stronger than another. In the classic Platonic understanding of the soul we have the appetitive part that desires sensuous pleasure, the spirited which desires honour and recognition, and the rational part of the soul which seems to desire knowledge.

At first the Platonic of moral agency may seem to say little about knowledge, as you can easily combine a moral psychology that combines a view of knowledge as naturalistic facts with the idea that in the ethical realm our selves are disordered and our desires come into a conflict with one another. However, while this explanation seems intuitive it really does not hold up. If I think it is bad to steal and this is part of my ethical knowledge, the “I” that knows this cannot disappear when another element of the self, or another “I” within me puts forward the claim that it is okay to steal as long as it from affluent people. If this was the case I would not really have ethical knowledge, instead a part of myself as a whole might have ethical knowledge that stealing is wrong, but taken in my entirety “I” do not have this knowledge, because the constituents of myself do not possess a harmonious ethical vision. But rather each constituent of myself represents a dissonant and oppositional claim of knowledge. If I actually had ethical knowledge than the entirety of myself would be acting and thinking in line with the same, as opposed to divergent ethical notions. Knowledge, on this interpretation of Plato is always already fused with practical activity, for to have ethical knowledge is to be able to act consistently according to a proper understanding of the good while recognizing why one is taking these actions. In this case, it is not that I have knowledge and then choose to apply it because I commit to being ethical, but that right action constitutes right knowledge and right reason.

I am not sure if I completely agree with this Platonic image, but is a powerful image and one that confronts us with a moral psychology that is very different from our own, and consequently something that we can learn from.

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Logos, Drinks and Justice

Evelyn Femier, Robert Dittleby and Kelly Theosyn sit in a crowded pub near the Liberal Arts college they attend. They share a few pitchers of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, much to the chagrin of Robert who is upset that Sierra Nevada is three dollars more than the pale ale that is made by the owner of this pub, which in his opinion is at least as good.

After having finished a pint Evelyn asserts “the entire concept of a distinction between higher and lower ways of life is but an excuse for the privileged to oppress those who are below them, by labeling them as somehow lower whether in character, culture or moral purity.”

“If and when we achieve true justice we would have no need for a concept that some modes of life are higher and some are lower, as long as all are equally able to pursue their own way of life there is no reason to even speak of better and worse modes of life. The concept of the better and worse way of life is just a tool used to shame and marginalize the disadvantaged!”

Robert’s cheeks become red from a combination of righteous indignation, the beer and the additional Jager bomb that he had just had. He takes a second to collect himself for fear of coming across as unreasonable and begins “this is typical Social Justice Warrior claptrap; the fact that some people think and say that certain modes of life are better than others does not oppress anyone. These opinions are just projections of the fact that certain people are attracted to certain ways of life, and do not like other modes of life. People need to be less sensitive and realize that the terms higher and lower just signal that the person saying them has a preference for the item they attach the signifier “better” to. To try to prevent people from using these terms would be to prevent from stating their preferences, which is in itself a direct rejection of the right of individuals to express themselves.”

Evelyn responds “that is a strawman. I never said the fact that people have such opinions about ways of life constitutes oppression, but that typically these opinions are used to perpetuate oppression, and that if we are all truly equal these opinions would be unnecessary. These opinions about the superiority of certain ways of life would not be necessary as all would just do what they wanted and leave others to themselves.”

Kelly rolls his eyes and sits there looking at his beer and his glass of Tullamore Dew with a look that at once signals boredom and mild annoyance. He says “can we just talk about something else? Why do you two always have to bicker over this sort of thing. I came here to relax and have a good conversation, not to try to definitely determine the requirements of social justice.”

Kelly then finishes his Tullamore Dew and the rest of his pint and looks off towards the other side of room.

Robert replies “that is a pretty terrible argument Kelly. Are you suggesting that discussing the requirements of social justice is not important?”

“That is not it at all. Discussion of that topic is certainly important, it is just that you two never have an interest in actually talking to each other. You just continue to assert your position unthinkingly as if by mere repetition you would knock down the other.”

With a confused look on her face, in response, Evelyn says “but how would we avoid talking past each other when we fundamentally disagree about the requirements of social justice? Certainly it is because of this disagreement that we cannot argue in a calm fashion and we end up in a situation of stalemate. Which just proves my point that rational argument cannot overcome this stalemate, as it is only when we all have identical interests and thus no reason to have opposing views that these kind of stalemates will be overcome. And when we have achieved this we will have justice and all will have no need to argue because we will all be able to equally pursue our interests.”

“Yeah. I cannot believe I am saying this, but Evelyn is right. Rational argument between those who disagree will always remain in a state of stalemate and when these disagreements are resolved it is not because of linguistic reason, but because of some other aspect of the situation changes such as demographics or technology. This is why the market and majority vote are the best way of adjudicating claims because the market simply gives the object to the highest bidder, and the majority vote just requires us to count up how many support a particular position. Either way we avoid the need to get into messy, intractable arguments.,” Robert adds.

Kelly sighs and says “you two miss the point again. It is true that argument between those who disagree, even when done in good faith, tends to continue in stalemate. But this tendency does not mean that argument cannot establish agreement between those who formerly disagree, which is what both of you have asserted. Haven’t we all had a point in our life where we realized that we were wrong about something after another has corrected us and shown us to be holding a position that we ourselves could not accept?”

The waiter comes over and interrupts “another pitcher, another Jager bomb for you, and another Tullamore Dew for you?”

“Yes, sure” the trio reply, and immediately after the waiter walks way

“Based on what I was saying before I was interrupted doesn’t it seem possible for speech to allow us to come to agreement even where we deeply disagree?”

“I guess so, but it is rare, so it might not be the most reliable method to adjudicate conflict” says Robert.

“That certainly may be the case, but that just means that reasoned speech may not be the most reliable method to build social institutions on and that other mechanisms will likely be necessary, not that reasoned speech somehow cannot resolve such conflict,” Kelly notes.

Evelyn adds “the point you made about reasoned speech may be true, but we can confidently say that actually existing reasoned speech is constitutive of existing relations of power. Therefore we never encounter a situation of reasoned speech between equals in the absence of power relations, but between oppressors and oppressed. In which case reasoned speech is just a mere weapon to either fight the oppressed or continue oppression, rather than a mechanism used to come an agreement about the nature of something. “

Kelly notes “I appreciate your candor Evelyn and your position certainly has a certain consistency to it, but do you really believe this? Let us return to the concept of higher and lower ways of life that began this discussion. Surely as someone who rejects discourse that invokes concepts of higher and lower ways of life. You do not use these concepts.”

“Well, that is not entirely accurate I am willing to use them strategically to unmask existing forms of power and strategically support just causes,’ replies Evelyn.

Kelly looks down again at the table and says “but Evelyn when you utter these arguments to unmask existing forms of power and strategically support just causes, these statements are presented to the one to whom you are speaking as sincere arguments no? You don’t go around qualifying that your argument is just a rhetorical weapon for fighting injustice?”

“No, that would be stupid,” replies Evelyn. “In order for a strategic argument to be effective it must be presented as a sincere argument rather than just an instrument for change.”

“So, you agree that when this argument is presented to the other it needs to take on the appearance of sincerity and thus in the space of appearance of a given conversation the argument must present itself as an argument sincerely saying certain ways of life are better than others. But if this is so than the power of this argument can only be adjudicated based on its insight. The only way this argument will in effect convince people is if it reveals an insight to them, and whether this is insight is contrived for political effect or sincere is really irrelevant.”

“What are you getting at?” Evelyn questions.

Kelly stops drinking from his beer and replies “when you make an argument on any topic including the nature of which ways of life are better and which are worse once the words in the argument have left your lips they do not bear any necessary connection to your intention. The fact that an argument is insincere and just intended to win, does not mean that the argument will not reveal something important to the audience to whom it is presented. And in, and through this revealing while the argument may have been attempted as mere casuistry it actually becomes a revealer of the truth and thus something that can allow those who disagree to come to agreement.”

Evelyn further inquires “sure, but why does this matter?”

Kelly then looked straight at Evelyn and says “It matters because if you admit this than you admit that reasoned speech can lead to the truth even when the reasoned speech is attempted as a mere political vehicle for change. This shows that while there is an aspect of reasoned speech that is vulnerable to being made subordinate to oppression and power, even when someone tries to subordinate reasoned speech to political ends, speech has the capacity to reveal truth. This shows that reasoned speech cannot be reduced to a mere object under the control of human beings, but is rather something that we interact with and which allows us to come to a better understanding even when our desire for certain ends pushes to make disingenuous arguments. If this is the case then even when reasoned speech is involved in existing relations of power and oppression, it contains within it the capacity to subvert the very oppressors that using it to dominate the vulnerable. In which case reasoned speech is not just an instrument of a power, but also a revealer of truths and insight.”

Evelyn glares at Kelly and angrily replies “this is the kind of nonsense metaphysics that merely serves to prevent the oppressed from being liberated. We should not be focusing on who is right, but how to make people’s lives better.”